Monday Matters (November 23, 2020)

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I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.
-Nelson Mandela
Fear is a reaction. Courage is a decision.
-Winston Churchill
Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread of them, because it is the Lord your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.
-Deuteronomy 31:6
I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.
-Joshua 1:9
Love the Lord, all you his saints.The Lord preserves the faithful, but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily. Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord.
-Psalm 31:23, 24
Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
-from the Post-Communion Prayer at the conclusion of the service of Holy Eucharist

Be not afraid

A recent conversation took me back to the days when I worked at an ad agency, before I made the slight career shift to ordained ministry. (I’ve been told that I’m still in advertising, but that’s another topic.) Though it was a particularly secular environment, in which theological issues and liturgical practices never came up in staff meetings or client presentations, there were some spiritual lessons.

In one conversation with the principal of the agency, he posited two motivations in promoting a product or service: love and fear. An advertisement should either connect with what you love, or tap into what you’re afraid of. For instance, this was an agency that came up with the slogan for air filters for your car: “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.” Buy this product out of fear of automotive apocalypse. Judgment Day is coming for your Oldsmobile. I’m guessing you can think of other advertising examples.

The conversations that evoked this memory had to do with church history, and more specifically, the personal spiritual journeys of people in our congregations. In my years in Episcopal congregations, I’ve noted that many of our people come from other traditions where the fear of God, the fear of judgment, the fear of damnation was the motivator. God was the celestial judge just waiting for people to mess up. Better be religious or else. No wonder so many people feel that they have been spiritually wounded. No wonder there are so many nones (i.e., no religious affiliation) and dones (i.e., done with church).

I haven’t counted to verify but I’m told there are 365 times in the Bible in which people are told that they should not be afraid. One for each day. A daily exhortation. We’ll read a few of those stories in Advent and Christmas seasons. The opening lines from angels to Zechariah, Joseph, Mary, shepherds are some version of “Fear not!” I can imagine that fear might be a reasonable response to an unexpected angelic visit.

But maybe it’s deeper than just surprise. Maybe the angels are also saying that fear is not a healthy motivator. It brings with it toxicity that deforms relationships with God and neighbor. We see that fear-based brokenness at work in families, workplaces, churches, and in our political system. It pervades our racial reckoning. It shapes our regard for those who differ from us and leads us to treat those folks without regard for Christ’s presence in each one of them, dismissing the inherent dignity in each person, created in God’s image.

This kind of fear differs from the fear of the Lord that scripture tells us is the beginning of wisdom. That kind of fear, that spirit of awe recognizes that our lives unfold in the presence of a power greater than ourselves. The good news of our faith is that that greater power is by nature the power of love (and not the love of power).

I’ve been told that the opposite of love is fear. The Bible seems to confirm that when we read that perfect love casts out fear. Another way to think about it.  Courage is the opposite of fear, recognizing that the word courage shares the same root as heart (as in the French word for heart, coeur). Digging more deeply into the word, Richard Rohr points out that courage comes from the Latin, cor-agere, literally “an act of the heart.’

So blessings to you this day, in this unusual time when there are a bunch of reasons to indulge in fear. We launch on a season of thanksgiving and enter Advent, a season of hope, leading to a season of comfort and joy. May we start out this week, living not in fear but with courage, with acts of the heart. In whatever faces you this week, be fearless. Be of good courage.

-Jay Sidebotham

RenewalWorks: Connect
What happens after RenewalWorks?
We invite you to join us for a new monthly online series to discuss how to continue this work of spiritual growth and to support one another on the way.

 

Next call:  Wednesday, December 2nd, 7pm EDT

Our guest presenter will be the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, Canon for Evangelism, Racial Reconciliation and Creation Care for the Presiding Bishop.
Join our email list to receive the Zoom link:

Monday Matters (November 16, 2020)

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We remember 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, 30% of what we see, 50% of what we see and hear, 70% of what we discuss with others, 80% of what we personally experience, 95% or what we teach others.
-Edgar Dale

 

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
-The Book of Common Prayer, page 236

 

Your word is a lantern to my feet, and a light upon my path.
-Psalm 119:105

 

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act-they will be blessed in their doing.
-James 1:22-25

 

Jesus said: You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.
-John 5:39

 

Know the word.
Love the word. 
Live the word. 
Give the word.
-attributed to Mother Teresa

Why read the Bible?

I was reminded last week of the story of Karl Barth, prolific Swiss theologian of the 20th century, one of the greats. Let’s just say he never had an unexpressed written thought. He offered volumes upon volumes of dense writing (that often made me feel dense) on all kinds of subjects. At one point, a smart-ass seminarian asked if the good doctor could sum that all up in one sentence. Kind of a gotcha question. Dr. Barth said he could do so and he did so with the following sentence: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

If that story is not true, it ought to be, for what it reveals is the role the Bible plays in the Christian faith journey. In the work we do with congregations, we’ve learned that a key factor in spiritual vitality in churches is engagement with scripture. Understatement alert: In the Episcopal world, that can mean different things to different folks. But a distinctive element, in the words of Will Willimon in his book Shaped by the Bible, is that a Christian congregation is one that is confronted by and shaped by the Bible. How does that happen?

Yesterday in church, we heard a prayer that comes up once a year (included above.) It’s about scripture, asking God’s help in engagement with scripture, delineating a process that involves five steps. In the prayer. we ask for grace to:

1. Hear: We are meant simply to be open, to pay attention, to decide that the words of scripture are worth listening to. Jesus would often tell the crowds that he offered his teaching for those who had ears to hear. We often decide what we will hear. Spouses and children and students and clergy often engage in selective hearing. We all have a lot we can listen to, and we all face lots of distractions. How will we choose?

2. Read: Find out what the Bible says, for yourself. Do the work. As one pastor said to his congregation, perhaps in frustration: “I can’t read the Bible for you.” It’s a discipline, and so we often suggest some kind of daily ritual, a morning quiet time, participation in the Daily Office (so chock full of scripture), devotional guides like Forward Day by Day. We encourage a set bit of time each day, even if it’s just a few minutes. We encourage a sacred place in your home, a quiet place, a particular chair, maybe marked by a candle or a closed door or a sound machine to help keep focus.

3. Mark: The method of Bible study known as the African model asks a couple questions. It begins by asking what word or phrase strikes you. It then asks where the passage intersects with your life. That’s a good place to start in marking scripture. Don’t be afraid to underline. Keep a journal that includes your most honest and irreverent questions. Pray those questions, or take them to someone you trust for spiritual counsel.

4. Learn: It’s what disciples do. A disciple is a learner, a student. That means, among other things being prepared for something new, something different, to admit that you don’t know what you don’t know. True learning comes with putting what you hear, read, and mark to work, to be doers of the word, not only hearers, to quote the New Testament letter of James.

5. Inwardly digest: Let it become part of you. We sometimes hear, as Episcopalians dive more deeply into scripture, that they are amazed how much of the Bible comes from the Book of Common Prayer. It actually happened the other way around. Those who shaped our guide for worship had inwardly digested the words of scripture. Those words were deeply integrated. It shows.

Why do any of this? Yesterday’s collect tells us it is not in order to be holier or smarter than thou. It is for the sake of hope, hope of everlasting life given to us in Jesus. That everlasting life is not pie in the sky but is underway right now. We get to experience it more and more each day. And as Dr. Barth indicated, that hope is anchored in the love God for us, a love from which we can never be separated (eternally). The Bible in all its complexity, in the parts we like and don’t, in the parts we understand and don’t, is at its core a story of that ongoing relationship, a story of love that will not let us go.

So hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest. Because we can all use more hope.

-Jay Sidebotham

RenewalWorks: Connect
What happens after RenewalWorks?
We invite you to join us for a new monthly online series to discuss how to continue this work of spiritual growth and to support one another on the way.

 

Next call:  Wednesday, December 2nd, 7pm EDT

 

Our guest presenter will be the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, Canon for Evangelism, Racial Reconciliation and Creation Care for the Presiding Bishop.
Join our email list to receive the Zoom link:

Monday Matters (November 9, 2020)

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The gospel reading for the feast of St. Martin:  Luke 18:18-27
A certain ruler asked Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good-except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.'”  “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said. When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus replied, “What is impossible with humans is possible with God.”

What does the goose represent?

Later this week (Wednesday), we observe the feast of St. Martin. I love the guy. He’s the patron saint of the first church in which I served, St. Martin’s in Providence, Rhode Island, a great place. When I arrived, I discovered that the symbol of St. Martin is a goose. There were renderings of geese and references to geese all over the place. It didn’t strike me as the most noble mascot, but I went with the symbolism, new priest and all. But why a goose?

Martin, a priest, was elected bishop and didn’t want to be a bishop. Perhaps a measure of his wisdom, but that’s another topic. (Bishops, what do you think?) Upon election, Martin hid from the folks who wanted him to take the job. He hid in a barn, seemingly a good idea, except the honking of the geese in aforementioned barn gave away his hiding place. Next thing you know, he’s wearing a mitre.

That story endears Martin to me. It’s one in a series of stories in the Bible and in our tradition in which people are called by God and wonder if the call is a wrong number. Who me? Why me? You’ve got the wrong person, O Holy One. I’ve felt that way from time to time. Have you?

More about Martin. A patron saint of France, he was born in 330 in what is now Hungary. His early years were spent in Italy. After service in the Roman army, he settled in Poitiers, whose bishop, Hilary, he admired. According to legend, while Martin was still a catechumen, he was approached by a poor man who asked for alms in the name of Christ. Martin, drawing his sword, cut off part of his military cloak and gave it to the beggar. On the following night, Jesus appeared to Martin, clothed in half a cloak, and said to him, “Martin, a simple catechumen, covered me with his garment.” As a legend, the story may or may not be true. But if it’s not true, it ought to be.

That story endears me to Martin further. It reminds me of the parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25), in which Jesus commends those who help those in need, noting that such help is the way to meet Christ. It’s a principle reflected in the baptismal promises which call us to seek and serve Christ in all persons. All of them. And we all know that Christ can often come very well disguised. (Perhaps a good thing to recall in the wake of a particularly divisive election season.)

Martin, a rich young man, a person of means and influence, met and served Christ in this encounter. That’s why the gospel reading chosen for his day (see above) features a rich young man challenged to share what he had. The young man in the gospel chose a different path. He seems pretty clear that Jesus’ call is a wrong number. He goes away, sad. And it seems Jesus is sad too, according to accounts in other gospels. The young man’s refusal causes Jesus to offer the image of a camel going through the eye of a needle. It’s a tough passage for those attached to riches to enter the kingdom of God. It’s to let go. It’s tough for any of us who in terms of global poverty are wealthy. Is there hope for any of us?

Thanks be to God, the story doesn’t end there. Jesus says that with God, all things are possible. So with the help of this young man, and with the witness of St. Martin, let’s consider what is possible. That possibility will unfold as we take our cue from St. Martin this week. How are you being called? Do you wonder if that call is a wrong number? If there were a barn nearby, would you go hide there to escape the call? More specifically, where is God calling you to address the needs of our world, so evident in our considerable coincident crises? Who will you encounter, calling you to share what you have? How will you respond?

Take Martin’s witness to this possibility, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll meet Christ in the process.

-Jay Sidebotham

Consider a great resource in pandemic when we’re spending time at home:

RenewalWorks for Me

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory. We believe that it might be a wonderful practice for this unusual season in our common life.
Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org
4
Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

 

Monday Matters (November 2, 2020)

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In the morning, when I rise, in the morning, when I rise, in the morning, when I rise, give me Jesus. 
And when I am alone, and when I am alone, and when I am alone, give me Jesus. 
And when I come to die, and when I come to die, and when I come to die, give me Jesus.
Give me Jesus, give me Jesus. You can have all this world but give me Jesus.
 
 
For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.

-Mark 10:45

 

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

-Hebrews 12:1,2

 

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

  -Philippians 2:5-8

Give me Jesus

Last week, I had a conversation with a rector who’d been at her church for only a short time. It was long enough for parishioners to notice that “things were different.” After church one day, a member of the parish approached the rector and said, “You know, you’re doing something really interesting in your preaching.” The rector braced herself for whatever that was. She said that when you’re new, you never really know what folks are going to say. (Actually, that’s true when you’ve been at a place for a long time.) The rector asked him what it was. He said, “You’re talking about Jesus.” She tried to cloak her surprise, and said something like, “Well, yea. That’s my job!”

That reminded me of another story I heard a few years ago from a friend, a rector, who had a parishioner make an appointment with her on the Monday morning after her first Easter. This congregant had grown up in the parish. She said she was very concerned about the new rector’s Easter sermon. It contained “too much Jesus” in it. My friend laughed, thinking she was joking. The parishioner assured my friend she was serious. My friend asked what a person would preach on Easter if not Jesus. She said: “Perhaps something from Buddha.”

I’m graced to be able to take a morning prayer walk listening to the rhythm of Atlantic waves. I have a list of loved ones for whom I pray, those facing deep and varied challenges. Of late I’ve been praying for our broken world, as we contend with considerable coincident crises, and as we face tomorrow’s election and what it says about who we are. On these walks in recent days, a song has kept coming into my head: “Give me Jesus.” The text is above.

I’m not exactly sure why that song has come to me so persistently. What does Jesus have to do with this season of our lives? As I pray about health crisis, economic crisis, racial divide, polarized electorate, kids in cages, creation crying out, I wonder if the prayer “Give me Jesus” might be overly pious or naïve or escapist or irrelevant. Is it sufficient to meet the tasks at hand?

Maybe it is. Give me the Jesus who turned tables over in the temple. Who wasn’t afraid to label leaders whited sepulchers. Who touched lepers when no one else would. Who healed wherever he went. Who broke religious rules so he could heal on the Sabbath. Who hung out with a Samaritan woman of ill-repute and with tax collectors everyone hated. Who found power in service. Who wept at his friend’s grave. Who stretched out arms of love on the hard wood of the cross between two low-lifes who had the audacity to mock him. Who gave his life. Who brought new life.

So let me add a few stanzas:

  • When I’m fretting over election results, give me Jesus.
  • When I’m irked by people who disagree with me, give me Jesus.
  • When I’m bummed about people who disappoint me, give me Jesus.
  • When it’s hard to forgive, give me Jesus.
  • When it’s hard to believe I’m forgivable, give me Jesus.
  • When religion seems too flawed, give me Jesus.
  • When I feel too flawed, give me Jesus.
  • When the world’s pain seems too great, give me Jesus.
  • When I see my part in causing pain, give me Jesus.

What stanzas would you add this morning?

Four decades ago, good and saintly friends lost their 9-year old daughter to cancer. In his eulogy, the priest who pastored the family described the young girl’s final moments. The last thing she did was to take the sacrament of bread and wine. She then said to her parents: I need Jesus. She turned into her natural sleeping position, one she had not been able to find for weeks, and slept, and died. The priest proclaimed that this young girl had reached the most profound, mature status of life, which is needing Jesus.

On the night before he died, Jesus said to his friends: Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. (John 14:27) Are we talking too much about Jesus? Maybe not enough. If ever we needed the Lord before, we sure do need him now.

-Jay Sidebotham

Please continue in this season of prayer for an election.  Learn more at www.forwardmovement.org/election.

Consider a great resource in pandemic when we’re spending time at home:

RenewalWorks for Me

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory. We believe that it might be a wonderful practice for this unusual season in our common life.
Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org
4
Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

 

Monday Matters (October 26, 2020)

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I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Romans 12:1,2
 
 
I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 
Ephesians 3:16, 17
 
 
We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly.
Ephesians 4:14-16
 
 
But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.
II Peter 3:18

Wise guides

As I think about what it means to put faith to work in the world (the theme of these Monday messages), I’m grateful for the wisdom of several guides in my life.

Richard Rohr, in his book, The Wisdom Pattern, makes the point that “education is not the same as transformation.” Too often mainline churches have thought that the answer to going deeper in the spiritual life is to learn more stuff. Rohr suggests that while education matters, the goal of the spiritual life is not simply consumption of educational resources but the experience of soulful transformation. How will we be changed? How has transformation been part of your spiritual experience?

Dwight Zscheile, an Episcopal priest who teaches at Luther Seminary, wrote a book called “People of the Way.” In the introduction he asks about the difference between being a church member and being a disciple. Are they the same thing? What do you think? It can be tempting to think about membership as arrival.  “I’m in and close the door behind me.”A disciple is by definition a work in progress, someone on the move, open to learning, open to others, open to transformation.

A related thought from Brian McLaren, a question to which I often return: “Is the church a club for the spiritually elite who pretend to have arrived, or a school for disciples who are still on the way?” Don’t get me wrong. Clubs are great. But there is more.

Dawn Davis, a priest in the church of Canada and creator of the Revive program, speaks about the need to explore the difference between knowing about God and knowing God. She says it’s like the difference between reading a recipe and enjoying a meal.

Soren Kierkegaard framed the question in terms of worship, describing worship as a drama. He said that in the liturgy, the congregation are the actors and God is the audience. For too long, I have thought of gatherings for worship as being performances, a spectator sport. As clergy, I better be at the top of my game or the congregation (the audience) won’t clap. I love a good drama, but the spiritual life is one in which we all play a part.

These related thoughts from wise guides have been on my mind, as I think about my own spiritual journey and wonder about recent reports of decline in the church in our culture. For me, the hope is the promise of transformation. These thoughts are especially brought to mind as we navigate a season of considerable coincident crises (health, economic, environmental, racial), exacerbated by the anxiety of an impending election. I’ve seen plenty of news. I know a gracious plenty about issues and candidates. What I now need is the experience of trust that will make a difference, that will offer equanimity and hope, peace and tranquility, grace and lovingkindness in choppy waters.

That frame of mind comes not simply with knowing stuff about God, as important as that is. It comes in a relationship with God, known to us in Christ who stood up in the stern of the boat, in the midst of the storm and said “peace be still.” In my work with congregations, I’m grateful for so many wise guides with whom I’ve spoken, asking about their own spiritual experience. When I ask what has been transformative for them, what has helped them grow spiritually, the most common answer I get is crisis, challenge, difficulty, choppy waters. In those moments, we come to know our need of God. We’re in choppy waters right now. That’s precisely where God in Christ likes to go to work.

Starting tomorrow, the office of the Presiding Bishop and Forward Movement offer nine days: A season of prayer for an election. Learn more at www.forwardmovement.org/election.

-Jay Sidebotham

Consider a great resource in pandemic when we’re spending time at home:

RenewalWorks for Me

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory. We believe that it might be a wonderful practice for this unusual season in our common life.
Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org
4
Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

 

Monday Matters (October 19, 2020)

3-1
Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.
I Peter 3:15 (New Revised Standard Version)
 
 
Be ready to speak up and tell anyone who asks why you’re living the way you are, and always with the utmost courtesy. 
I Peter 3:15 (The Message)
 
 
Be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.
I Peter 3:15 (King James Version)
 
 
Christianity, for many, has come to mean anti-intellectual, fanatically narrow-minded people. Christianity, for some, is neither faith nor reason – just reactive tribalism hiding behind the skirts of Mother Church…I move in some circles where the word Christian means he knows nothing about history, nothing about politics and is probably incapable of civil conversation about anything. Five Bible quotes are the available answers to everything. How did we ever get to this low point after developing such a tradition of wisdom? How did we ever regress to such arrogance after the humble folly of the cross?
-Richard Rohr, The Wisdom Pattern

What we’re for

People more easily define themselves by what they are against, by what they hate, by who else is wrong, instead of by what they believe in and whom they love.

-Richard Rohr

A friend told me about a conversation with a parishioner, part of discussions about spiritual growth and their own experiences of faith. As they talked, this parishioner told my friend: “I prefer to self-identify as Episcopalian, not Christian.” I wished for the opportunity to explore that statement with this parishioner, to hear her story, to share my understanding that our Anglican tradition is deeply rooted in the story of Jesus, i.e, unavoidably Christian. But I also had a sense of what she might have meant. In our culture, word association with the word “Christian” does not always suggest good news. People think that word denotes judgmentalism, hypocrisy, a particular political agenda. This woman wanted to make clear: “I’m not that!”

Here’s a cheery Monday morning excerpt from Richard Rohr’s book, The Wisdom Pattern. He offers this observation of our culture: “The soul, the psyche, and human relationships seem at this point to be destabilizing at an almost exponential rate. Our society is producing very many unhappy and unhealthy people…The postmodern mind forms a deconstructed worldview. It does not know what it is for, as much as it knows what it is against, and what it fears.” This insight struck me not only because of the character of this toxic political season, but also because I had recently been talking with some church leaders about the state of our church.

One priest who grew up in a fundamentalist church said that for much of her life, her religious energy as an Episcopalian had been about defining herself by what she was not. Now in her own parish leadership, she recognized that her church was filled with people who were at the church in a defensive, reactive mode, many deeply wounded by other traditions. I’ve met those folks. Their company includes not only those raised in intense religious environments. I’ve met folks wounded by the fact that they were raised with no religious tradition. And of course, there are way too many examples of those wounded within the Episcopal tradition. So it’s understandable that people define themselves by what they’re not, or what they’re against, or who they are mad at.

In our work with congregations through RenewalWorks, we often find people react negatively to particular religious language, and to the ways religious questioned are framed. We often hear: “That’s not how I speak. That’s not how Episcopalians speak.” One of our coaches, an apt listener, heard this comment and responded: “I understand. So tell me. If that’s not your language, what is your language? How would you put this into your own words?”

We all have to do that work. As we think about our spiritual lives, our beliefs and our practices, especially the ways we put faith to work in the world, how do we describe them positively? How do we affirm as well as renounce? How do we talk about what we believe as well as what we refuse to believe? How do we describe where it is we give our hearts? How do we talk about practices that are meaningful and transformative for us? Maybe you want to sit down this week and jot down a few answers to these questions.

At one point, Jesus pulled his disciples aside, and in perhaps the first example of public opinion polling, he asked: “Who do the people say that I am?” When he’d gotten a few answers from his disciples, with laser like focus he then asked: “And who do you say that I am?” How would you answer that question? What’s your language? What are you for? Who are you for?

On any given day, we can all point to the failures of religious , institutions, traditions and their practitioners. We can easily lapse into the prayer of the Pharisee: Thank God I’m not like that tax collector (i.e., those people). The challenge: How do we think about, talk about and act on the things we believe? How do we do so without being reactive, defensive, judgmental, fearful?

This coming Sunday gives us a clue. Jesus is asked to name the greatest commandment. He says it’s all about love, love of God, love of neighbor. Love is our language.

-Jay Sidebotham

Consider a great resource in pandemic when we’re spending time at home:

RenewalWorks for Me

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory. We believe that it might be a wonderful practice for this unusual season in our common life.
Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org
4
Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

 

 

Monday Matters (October 12, 2020)

3-1
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!
-Psalm 27:14

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning,

-Psalm 130:5,6

 

Waiting is essential to the spiritual life. But waiting as a disciple of Jesus is not an empty waiting. It is a waiting with a promise in our hearts that makes already present what we are waiting for. We wait during Advent for the birth of Jesus. We wait after Easter for the coming of the Spirit, and after the ascension of Jesus we wait for his coming again in glory. We are always waiting, but it is a waiting in the conviction that we have already seen God’s footsteps.
Waiting for God is an active, alert – yes, joyful – waiting. As we wait we remember him for whom we are waiting, and as we remember him we create a community ready to welcome him when he comes.
-Henri Nouwen

Patience

O Lord, give me patience and give it to me now.

I confess that has sometimes been the gist of my prayer (a variation on Augustine’s prayer: Give me chastity, but not yet). Patience has been on my mind lately. Maybe yours as well.

These days, each morning I’m reading through the book of the Acts of the Apostles. I noticed this throw-away line. Towards the end of the book, Paul has been arrested in Jerusalem. He awaits a hearing, first with the local authorities and ultimately with Caesar in Rome. He has a hearing with one guy, who listens for a bit, seems to get bored and sends Paul away. It says Paul was sent away to prison for two years before the second hearing was held. Two years. How did he deal with that time of waiting? Didn’t God realize there was important missionary work to be done?

The story of Moses in the book of Exodus tells us that after Moses had to flee Egypt, he went into the wilderness where he became a shepherd. A throw-away line tells us that he did that for forty years. I find myself wondering what Moses was thinking. What am I doing with this ancient near eastern ivy league education, hanging out for forty years, looking after livestock? Then one day he turned aside to converse with a burning bush. But not until the time was right.

Early in the gospel of Luke, we meet Simeon and Anna, two senior citizens who spent their lives in the temple, waiting to see the Messiah, waiting to see how God would act. Faithfully waiting. It sounds like they would have waited forever.

Waiting is a spiritual discipline. Patience is a spiritual virtue. We’re talking fruits of the Spirit. To put it mildly, these days I need more of that virtue to live out that discipline. I suspect we all know about waiting. Waiting for a vaccine. Waiting for covid restrictions to lift. Waiting to get a call back after an interview. Waiting in line to vote. Waiting for a doctor’s report. Waiting for an election season to pass. Waiting for a paycheck. Waiting for things to stop changing. Waiting for things to start changing.

So what does holy waiting look like? Henri Nouwen indicates that such waiting is not passive, but rather active (see quote above).

So what is that activity? I’ll name five ideas, five that I work on. You can add others. I’d love to hear what they are:

  1. Gratitude: A recognition, a mindfulness of the goodness that is part of the present. Some people make daily lists of those things for which they are grateful. Maybe one thing. Maybe 5. Maybe 100. Some people write daily notes to people to whom they owe a debt of gratitude. There are a lot of ways to do that. When in doubt, recite the General Thanksgiving daily (p. 101 in the Prayer Book).
  2. Trust: an ability to live in the confidence that all will be well, that in the end all will be okay and if it’s not okay it’s not the end.
  3. Confession: Admit the pain of waiting is tough. If you need language for that, God gave us the psalms.
  4. Service: Why do we call a server in a restaurant a waiter?I’m not sure where that comes from but to me one of the ways to navigate my own impatience is to consider opportunities to be of help to someone, to be of service. Those opportunities surround us.
  5. Prayer: The discipline of waiting, the virtue of patience may only be realized with God’s help. Fruits of the Spirit, not fruits of my own spiritual evolution or magnificence. The confession that the anxiety is getting to us, that we’re not sure how to manage it, can open the door to deeper patience.

Waiting can be hard. We all have to do it. Thank God for God’s help, claiming the wisdom of Isaiah who promised that those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:13) Phew.

-Jay Sidebotham

Consider a great resource in pandemic when we’re spending time at home:

RenewalWorks for Me

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory. We believe that it might be a wonderful practice for this unusual season in our common life.
Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org
4
Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

 

 

Monday Matters (October 5, 2020)

3-1

St. Paul wrote:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!  Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4-7)

Jesus said to his disciples:
I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. (John 15:11)

 

Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.

– Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

 

I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.

-Rabindrath Tagore

A cloud of witnesses

I’m reading a book entitled “The Buddhist on Death Row: How One Man Found Light in the Darkest Place.” In it, the author David Sheff tells the story of Jarvis Jay Masters, prisoner in San Quentin, death sentence looming. In confinement, Masters discovered the power of meditation, becoming a Buddhist. He said: “The death penalty saved my life. And gave me life…I never would have meditated. Never would have learned about Buddhism. Never. Never would have been interested.” He described his ceremony of initiation as a Buddhist: “My old self died. The person who was desensitized, numb, dead. And from that death, it’s like I became someone new. I’m becoming someone new.” He went on to be of service to other inmates, finding ways to share what he had learned and somehow in that place, finding joy. The book causes me to consider, wonder, marvel at the witness of folks who discover joy in the darkest places.

It’s the witness of Paul and Silas as described in Acts 16. Tossed into a first century prison (Let your imagination run wild on what that was like!), they spent the night singing hymns and praising God. It’s the witness of Paul in his letter to the Philippians, which we’ve been reading on Sundays. In that letter, written from prison, every other word is joy or rejoice. What gives?

It’s the witness of St. Francis of Assisi, whose feast we observed yesterday.  Maybe you’ve participated in a blessing of the animals (Once I blessed a 5 foot iguana, which arrived in a snuggly on the chest of its owner who had come to church on the subway.) or quoted Francis’ beautiful prayer about being an instrument of God’s peace. But what was it about him that one of the memories persisting over the centuries has to do with his sense of joy, while taking on a life of poverty and enduring opposition from many sides? We’re told he censured friars who went about with gloomy faces, exhorting them to cheerful demeanor. When thieves beat him up and threw him in a snowy ditch, he jumped out and joyfully sang praises to God. In a famous exchange with Brother Leo, he describes perfect joy: If we bear injuries with patience and joy, thinking of the sufferings of our Blessed Lord, which we would share out of love for him, write, O Brother Leo, that here, finally, is perfect joy.

It’s the witness of Nelson Mandela, 27 years in prison, who said: You may find that the cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the processes of your own mind and feelings. That kind of reflection allowed Mandela to combat forces of institutionalized racism, poverty and inequality.

It’s the witness of the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, good friends who laughed a lot, as recorded in “The Book of Joy,” an account of conversations they had in a week together. Each of these men knew the worst that 20th century politics could inflict. Though reflecting different religious traditions, they each exhibit joy. Part of that joy, that equanimity, that peace resulted from the fact that they each spent hours daily in prayer.

It’s the witness of Pope Francis whose first apostolic exhortation was entitled “The Joy of the Gospel.” His first papal homily, on Palm Sunday 2013, began: “Here is the first word I wish to say to you: joy!”

It’s the witness of Jesus who told his disciples that he came to give them abundant life. On the night before he was arrested, tortured and executed, knowing full well what was coming, Jesus told his disciples  that he came to give them joy that was complete.

We are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses. They tell us, remind us, show us that joy can come in the darkest places. It comes with expressions of gratitude, quiet time, service, listening. We all know dark places, some more devastating or inexplicable than others. Maybe you’re in one of those places this Monday. Maybe every Monday feels a bit like that. These witnesses remind us that we are not alone in facing darkness. They also let us know that valleys can be places where we glimpse a long, beautiful view that includes a path forward.

-Jay Sidebotham

 

4
Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

 

 


RenewalWorks: Connect
 
What happens after RenewalWorks?
We invite you to join us for a new monthly online series to discuss how to continue this work of spiritual growth and to support one another on the way.
 
Next call:  Wednesday, October 7th, 7pm EDT
Join us via Zoom video conference
 

Monday Matters (September 28, 2020)

3-1
Commit your way to the Lord and put your trust in him, and he will bring it to pass.
He will make your righteousness as clear as the light and your just dealing as the noonday.
Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.
Do not fret yourself over the one who prospers, the one who succeeds in evil schemes.
Refrain from anger, leave rage alone; do not fret yourself; it leads only to evil.
Psalm 37:5-9

 

The ultimate reason for our hope is not to be found at all in what we want, wish for and wait for; the ultimate reason is that we are wanted and wished for and waited for. What is it that awaits us? Does anything await us at all, or are we alone? Whenever we base our hope on trust in the divine mystery, we feel deep down in our hearts: there is someone who is waiting for you, who is hoping for you, who believes in you. We are waited for as the prodigal son in the parable is waited for by his father. We are accepted and received, as a mother takes her children into her arms and comforts them. God is our last hope because we are God’s
first love.”

-Jürgen Moltmann from “The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life.”

Trust

Trust is on my mind these days. Apparently, I’m not alone in wondering who to trust, as we grapple with considerable coincident crises, crises of health, economics, racial division and inequity, climate change. Science, politicians, media, election processes, institutional religion, law enforcement are all being questioned, against the background noise of what some call fake news, untruths and alternative facts. We never know what’s around the corner, but Covid-tide is a season of heightened anxiety fueled by uncertainty about what, who and how we can trust.

That has led me to think about all the ways that scripture calls us to trust. Easier said than done. (One of my college friends signed his religion papers with the acronym: SOKOP. Sounds okay on paper). The psalms, in a number of places, offer a variation of the following verse: Put not your trust in rulers or in any child of earth, for there is no help in them. (Psalm 146:3) Maybe you’re thinking about trust these days as well. Apparently, a lot of people are. If so, join me in working through a few questions:

1. Where do you draw strength? Asked another way: What are reliable sources of nourishment and sustenance for the journey? We live in a world offering lots of spiritual junk food, easy to swallow but not what we really need, not ultimately sustaining. We give our hearts to that which does not satisfy our hearts. It’s especially tough when so many Christian leaders reveal the hypocrisy of the church, nothing new under the sun. As one of those church leaders, when I hear the reasonable, verifiable complaint that the church is just filled with hypocrites, all I can say is, “Guilty as charged.” Then I revert to the prayer that both sustains and frightens me: “Let not those who hope in you be put to shame through me.” (Psalm 69:7) What would it mean to draw strength from the God who calls us into relationship?

2. Where do you place your hope? Asked another way: In whom do you place hope? The old hymn affirms: We may not know what the future holds, but we know who holds the future. In many ways, we find ourselves in the midst of storms. Life these days feels like those small glass snow domes that get all shook up. We’re waiting for things to settle. Hoping. Jurgen Moltmann based his theology on hope. In a paper called The Spirit of Hope: Theology For A World In Peril, Moltmann wrote (pre-covid): “Terrorist violence, social and economic inequality, and most especially the looming crisis of climate change all contribute to a cultural moment of profound despair.” Moltmann reminds us that Christian faith has much to say in response to a despairing world. In “the eternal yes of the living God,” we affirm the goodness and ongoing purpose of our fragile humanity. What would it mean to embrace the text of the hymn (#665 in the 1982 Hymnal) “All my hope on God is founded,” music written by Herbert Howells after the death of his 9 year-old son?

3. Where do you give your heart? Asked another way: What’s love got to do with it? As our Presiding Bishop reminds us, it all boils down to love. If it isn’t about love, it isn’t about God. Ultimately our trust is an expression of the heart, an expression of love. As in any committed relationship, love is based on the trust that partners seek the best for each other. They seek to honor each other, with all they are and have. More Moltmann: “God’s love empowers us to love life and resist a culture of death.” What would it mean, in a vindictive season, to let love be our guide in some new and deeper way this week, not giving into fear or fretting but figuring out some way to make it all about love?

As people of faith, we are called to “trust in the Lord with all our hearts, leaning not on our own understanding, confident that God will direct our paths.” (A riff on Proverbs 3:5,6) In case you haven’t picked it up already, I’m finding that challenging. It’s presumptuous of me to suggest a solution, as I navigate a cloud of unknowing. But here’s the answer I’ve decided to go with. I’m going to literally and figuratively take a deep breath and trust that the God of love has the whole world in his hands. And I’m going to try to remember that a life of hope is not always easy. Even more Moltmann: “Faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience. It does not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself this unquiet heart in man. Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world.” Said another way: All manner of things shall be well, but we may be in for rough sledding before we get there.

On that cheery note, amidst it all, I trust you will know blessing and peace this week. Thanks for thinking this through with me.

-Jay Sidebotham

 

4
Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

 

 


RenewalWorks: Connect
 
What happens after RenewalWorks?
We invite you to join us for a new monthly online series to discuss how to continue this work of spiritual growth and to support one another on the way.
 
Next call:  Wednesday, October 7th, 7pm EDT
Join us via Zoom video conference
 

Monday Matters (September 21, 2020)

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The Collect for the Feast of St. Matthew
We thank you, heavenly Father, for the witness of your apostle and evangelist Matthew to the Gospel of your Son our Savior; and we pray that, after his example, we may with ready wills and hearts obey the calling of our Lord to follow him; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
 
Matthew 9:9-13
As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

Follow me

My, it was a fine sermon, a clear call to discipleship, based on the gospel printed above, the gospel chosen for the Feast of St. Matthew (which is today). My compelling preaching was based on the two words Jesus said to Matthew: Follow me. With unbridled homiletic prowess, I made the point that we each are called to a deeper discipleship that goes to our heart and changes our lives. And because I’m such an able communicator, I included in the Sunday bulletin a rather large, unavoidable bookmark with the phrase: Follow Me, printed in bold but elegant font. It was a takeaway that would keep the message of discipleship in front of parishioners, perhaps for the rest of their lives. It was a good morning.

That same evening, my wife and I were invited to a dinner party. We were greeted at the door by the host, a parishioner, who immediately asked if we’d like a drink from the bar. When I said yes, he pulled out the aforementioned bookmark: Follow me. He led me to libation.

I realized that what I had said and what had been heard from the pulpit may not have been the same.

We may have a clear idea of what it means to affiliate with a denomination, or to be a church member. But that is not necessarily the same as thinking about what it means to be a disciple, a follower of Jesus. Whether it was my host’s appropriation of Jesus’ phrase, or the ways we talk about following someone on social media, we may need to reclaim this word “follow.” Use this feast day to think about what it means for you to follow Jesus, however you are choosing to do that. And let me suggest three things implied in that call.

First, it suggests movement. We can’t stay where we are. As Pope Francis said, there’s no such thing as a stationary Christian. In that suggestion, there’s an indication of another way, perhaps even hope. Matthew didn’t need to continue to be a tax-collector, despised by his own people. Peter didn’t need to continue to be a mediocre fisherman (Note: There is no indication that the disciples who were professional fishermen ever caught a fish without Jesus’ help.) While we may not know where the following will lead, it involves the hope of something better, a more abundant life, a life marked by healing and reconciliation, loving kindness and forgiveness.

Second, it suggests intentionality and purpose. One of my mentors suggests that we could substitute the word intentionality for discipleship. It may seem impulsive, but Matthew got up from his table, perhaps in the middle of tax consultation with a rich client. Other disciples dropped nets, left their businesses and leapt into a new life with Jesus. They made a decision, the road taken. We are faced on a daily basis with choices. Will we choose the way of love, with all that entails? Will we choose that way, even if we’re not sure what it entails?

Finally, it suggests relationship. We don’t follow a creed, a set of rules or guidelines. We follow a person. As Easter people we believe in the mystery that he is very much alive, met in the practice of prayer. He is met in worship, bread and wine conveying his presence. He is met in service to those in need. (As you have done it to the least of these, you have done it unto me. Matthew 25.) That relationship is marked by love and grace, a commitment to showing mercy as mercy has been shown to us. That relationship calls us to learn from him, to imitate him in word and action. We learn as we go, putting faith into practice, becoming more proficient, becoming more Christ-like in the process.

So what does it look like for you to be a follower of Jesus this week?

-Jay Sidebotham

 

4
Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

 

 


RenewalWorks: Connect
 
What happens after RenewalWorks?
We invite you to join us for a new monthly online series to discuss how to continue this work of spiritual growth and to support one another on the way.
 
Next call:  Wednesday, October 7th, 7pm EDT
Join us via Zoom video conference